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The Importance of Gibbons

A ten-month-old gibbon plays in her new-found home at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Bangron, Thailand. The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP) is a small organization based in Phuket, Thailand, that has dedicated itself to the rescue and rehabilitation of captive gibbons for the past 22 years. The baby gibbon leaps between the elephant bushes and swings with natural grace on the thick green stems. When she drops to the ground she stands up like a miniature human, walking straight-backed on her hind legs. Her skinny arms are outstretched to the volunteer who looks after her. The sand colored fur that covers her small body is as soft as kitten down. Bulbous black eyes peer at onlookers from behind a leaf. Her name is Kip; she is a white-handed gibbon, a species of ape that dwells primarily in the canopies of the Southeast Asian jungles. When she was six months old, she was rescued and brought to the GRP after her family had been killed by poachers.

Out of all primates known to man, including chimpanzees, Gibbons are humans’ closest relatives regarding DNA structure. In fact, gibbon DNA has a 98% consistency rate with human DNA. This can be observed from social interactions, group formations, emotional contexts, and cognitive processes that are similar to what humans experience.

Without the gibbons of Southeast Asia, the jungles of Thailand, and surrounding countries, would falter in the ability to filter out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release vital oxygen molecules and water vapor as well as produce valuable lumber for building construction and various fruits and organic material sold in markets around the world. Gibbons are primates that reside in the canopies of SE Asian rainforests. They spend the majority of their days digesting wild fruits and vegetation, leaping from branch to branch, and playing with family and friends. They are small and from a distance, appear cute and cuddly; however, they are extremely powerful, territorial, and adept at protecting their family members. Lightning fast with sharp fangs and an iron grip, gibbons will do nearly anything to protect their young from danger, even if it means sacrificing their lives. They have the amazing ability to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment; nevertheless, the white handed gibbon of Thailand has become endangered in recent years from poaching and black market demands.

After the sun sets on the hot and sticky sidewalks of Phuket Thailand, the city comes alive with nightclubs, bars, shops, restaurants, and street vendors selling their goods and services. Shopkeepers shout out to people on the sidewalks to come in and look in their stores. In the midst of the noise and the smells is a small bamboo cage hanging outside a popular tavern that is often frequented by tourists. Inside the cage sits a gibbon that is less than a year old. She is exhausted from having been kept awake most of the day and into the night for several weeks. Her name is Bo and she is one of thousands of victims of the black market trade in Thailand. Bo was born in a jungle outside of Phuket where the only sounds she heard were chirping birds in the canopies, the wind blowing through the trees, and the occasional songs sung by neighboring gibbon families. Her entire family was killed by poachers when she was eight months old and she was taken into Phuket and sold for the highest price to a couple that owned a bar in the city.

Poachers from rural villages in Thailand and surrounding countries make their livelihoods from killing whole gibbon families in order to capture the infants. They use the pelts and teeth of the elders for trading in the black market and sell the infants to shop owners who display them in windows, hoping to lure unaware tourists into their stores. A report by National Geographic in 2009 noted that gibbons were nearly wiped out from the jungles of Phuket by the mid 1980’s. In 1992, Thailand’s government outlawed the poaching of wildlife; however, the government failed to provide adequate resources to reinforce the law and so poaching continued unabated. The majority of poachers come from rural villages in the jungle regions of Thailand. In these areas, profitable labor is scarce and many individuals resort to illegal activities such as poaching in order to feed and care for their families.

The profit that poachers gain from hunting gibbons is substantial but comes at a great cost. According to May Ampika, coordinating director of the GRP, “one in three babies that are captured survives long enough to be sold as a pet in Thailand’s black market” This is only the beginning of a harsh and condemned existence for the captured gibbons who suffer from drug induced mistreatment on a daily basis. Gibbons naturally begin their bedtime around four O'clock in the afternoon (this is when the jungle environment slows down in the heat of the day and danger is at its lowest) but shopkeepers and bartenders want their captive gibbons to stay awake during the busy evening hours and so they induce their gibbons with everything from caffeine to alcohol and even heroin and cocaine. Many of these gibbons contract disease like herpes and HIV and if not rescued, most endure slow painful deaths alone in small cages on the street far from their jungle home.      

Why should the human community be concerned with the poaching and trading of gibbons (apart from the emotional pull toward rescuing them from harm)? Because without the benefits that gibbons provide, the massive rainforests of Thailand will begin to die and the surrounding areas will collapse into a state of endangerment that will negatively affect the lives of locals and international populations. According to dedicated researchers at the GRP:

Gibbons have a small positive effect on the food habits of several species that might be called ‘commensal’, since they have no concomitant beneficial effect on gibbons. Many species of mammal eat the fruits that gibbons drop from fruit trees, such as the Indochinese ground squirrel (Menetes berdmorei), the Malayan porcupine (Hystrix brachyura) and the common wild pig (Sus scrofa). The crow-billed drongos (Dicrurus annectans) always follows the gibbons for part of the day. The gibbons dislodge insects whilst foraging, which are then eaten by the drongos.

Without the fallen fruits, these ground-dwellers would disappear and the work they did to fertilize and aerate the soil would be lost causing trees to die and many other organisms will follow.

The men and women at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project have worked tirelessly for ten years now, nurturing baby gibbons into capable adults who are then encouraged to bond with other gibbons, form lasting relationships, and build families. Once they are ready to be released into the jungle, a process taking six to ten years for each family, they undergo a gentle release into a local protected jungle Khao Phra Thaew where they are safe from loggers and poachers. “The forest in Khao Phra Thaew [Bangron, Thailand] is a tropical evergreen forest (rainforest). There are many kinds of trees and plants, particularly Dipterocarpus species, which are both beautiful and have a value for the economy” says Punnadee, a researcher and rehabilitator at the GRP.  

May Ampika works twelve hour days as well as weekends along with her qualified staff in order to secure the fate of the resident gibbons. But the road is long and unpredictable. One miscalculation, one element left unattended, or one illegal poacher in the forest and the mission will collapse into ruin. May and her team have come up with a strategy for confronting each dynamic of this complex and convoluted system.

Each gibbon residing at the GRP was rescued from inadequate accommodations including store windows, bars, homes, and sometimes even the jungle itself and is usually found in poor condition. The GRP’s first goal is to bring them back to a healthy condition, but in such a way that they don’t become reliant on humans for food and comfort. Gibbons are extremely social beings and will connect to their human caregivers as a family unit, a connection that can be life threatening for the gibbon if ended abruptly. The process of returning a gibbon to its natural state can take several years and sometimes, if hepatitis, AIDS, and/or other serious injuries are present, they will remain in quarantine the rest of their lives. Quarantine is a section of the GRP that is like gibbon paradise outside of the jungle. Gibbons are well fed, cared for, given enriching activities to do and are safely kept in spacious enclosures customized to fit the needs of each individual.

The GRP focuses on pairing gibbons with each other and gently encourages mating and the beginnings of families. This can be a long and tricky process as well because if one gibbon decides not to like another, there will be serious injury and possible death. Gibbons cannot survive in the jungle alone, therefore, families must be formed and once they are and have been monitored for at least a year and until the first infant is born, they cannot be safely released into the wild. Once a family is released, it is periodically observed at ground level by educated volunteers for the duration of its years in the jungle.

Working to educate the locals about the plight of the gibbons and another strategy used by the GRP. By reaching out to the communities, they hope to get the idea across to poachers that poaching creates more harm in the world than good. They work to create sustainable job opportunities for men who resort to poaching for the black market profit. They go to schools, businesses, and monasteries to hand out pamphlets and educate the children and people about the seriousness of the matter.

Volunteers from around the world are invited to the GRP to work alongside the staff members and gain knowledge through experience. The GRP built a small education center in the jungle for tourists and locals to visit. This site is brimming with information given in Thai and English about Gibbons and their effects on the jungles and the importance of their preservation. Pamphlets are printed in 25 known languages and are made available to all visitors.  

The jungle in Bangron was stripped bare of its gibbons 25 years ago and since then has been silent of the gibbon song. Now, with the GRP, five families (15 gibbons) have been released and are successfully breeding and living as naturally as possible. However, with as much work as the GRP has done, it can’t stand up to the effect that tourists have on the black market and shopping areas in Thailand that still agree to display gibbons on a regular basis. This is where responsible and sustainable tourism comes in.

If a tourist stops by a shop with a gibbon in the front window and decides to buy something from that shop, they are promoting the idea that keeping baby gibbons in such conditions is good for business. But if the tourist sees the gibbon, is appalled because they have been informed of the probable cruelties that gibbon has endured, and walks away, the store keeper might get the hint that it is not good for business and will desist in his behavior. Many tourists are touched by the gibbon’s condition and want to buy it off the storekeeper. The storekeeper will see this as a good business transaction and will go out and buy another one, dooming another whole family of gibbons in the wild. The appropriate course of action for the tourist is to get the name of the store and its location and report it to the police and the local wildlife conservation association, then continue walking, minding the storekeeper no mind. The police are qualified to rescue the gibbon and put it in a better home without rewarding the shopkeeper in any way.

It can also be made aware through the internet and media that gibbon harboring and exploitation is frowned upon by the populous, therefore signaling to the poachers and store owners that what they are doing will not gain them profit. Statistically, this method has been shown to lower percentages of black market trade as poachers discontinue their actions for lack of profit. Many species have been pulled from the endangered species list in this manner and it is the most effective way to stop poachers in their tracks and give gibbons a fighting chance.

With the enlightenment of the public about gibbon affairs, the endeavor of saving them from extinction is becoming more and more realistic. With more gibbon families in the jungles, and not on the streets, the ecosystem has a fighting chance at staying healthy and continuing to produce oxygen, filter carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and produce rainwater, food and sustainable lumber for the citizens on the globe.

August 14, 2014

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